Big data, even for the little ones
Copyright: Süddeutsche Zeitung/Worldcrunch – By Helmut Martin-Jung
Smaller enterprises can’t actually afford supercomputers. The EU wants to change that now. Big Data should not be the privilege of big firms only.
The engineering marvel that is the human body is complex. Complex enough for making it pretty plausible that a medication that is used to treat high blood pressure and angina pectoris also helps men with erectile dysfunction. The case of Viagra is only one notable example. It was a chance discovery. The Bioinformatics Company Transinsight based in Dresden, Germany, wants to help change things. It makes it possible for pharmaceutical companies to research what certain active substances might be good for apart from the known effects.
The only problem? Huge amounts of data will have to be searched, and that’s a rather complex undertaking — a task for a classic supercomputer. But they are very expensive and become obsolete quickly. That’s why a new EU project came together in the nick of time: Fortissimo’s goal is to provide businesses of small and medium size with supercomputers which, under normal circumstances, they could not afford.
“Companies must submit applications,” says Carolyn Brock from the University of Edinburgh, who has taken over the coordination of the Europe-wide project. “We have counted 40 applications in the most recent round of which 11 have actually been accepted.” The project aims at fostering competitiveness for these small-and-medium-sized companies. “Some companies are really small and they face enormous challenges when addressing the EU Commission,” Brock says, “because they are technicians, they don’t know how to do that.”
In order to explain why many companies still make the effort and apply, she says, “We don’t only offer computing time, we also train the participants, and in the context of the project, we connect them with Europe’s best experts.” Brock is also convinced that universities and data centers also benefit from the program: “Schools get cross-linked with the most prestigious industry experts they may have never got in touch with otherwise.”
In line with this pilot project, access to expensive resources is free of charge for attendees. This will have to eventually change but since the end of October, there been an interesting option for companies to access cheap computing resources: participating institutions have launched a marketplace for supercomputer services in the form of a non-profit organization. Without much expense, companies can get their projects budgeted there without even having to be physically present at the computing machine. The marketplace functions 100 percent online.
The users only pay for what they need, including software, hardware and know-how. Just like the pilot project, the Fortissimo marketplace includes much more than solely the computing power. “We help companies understand what they are actually doing.” That’s what the Fortissimo counselors are for.
Among the 130 organizations participating in the Fortissimo pilot project, only the main partners have access to the marketplace in the beginning. But the objective is, says Brock, to make others follow as they go along, attracting new users like that. She hopes to lower the entry barrier for small-and-middle-sized companies when it comes to tackling big projects that require a lot of calculating capacity. On the other hand, companies may also offer their products and services at the marketplace.
Fortissimo does not compete with other Cloud-providers like Amazon Web Services that mainly offer computing power. Small companies can’t benefit from that anyway if they are missing the know-how of how to use it. Apart from that, a supercomputer can’t be compared with a cloud-computer either.
Fortissimo also works with the learning effect. The use of supercomputers is being planned and implemented along with the company. Concrete questions from the company’s business environment are used to demonstrate how the computer calculations can create added economic value.
That may be the design of complex work pieces as well as computer-simulated tests of pre-series models. The companies may even save money by using the simulations in the instance that no prototypes or only a few have to be produced. The first round of Fortissimo ends in December 2016. The second round started in November 2015 and ends in October 2018. For both projects, the EU has covered over €26 million of the total cost of €32.8 million.
Apart from universities and research institutes, companies like Bull or Intel also have a share in Fortissimo. There’s one German university among them: the University of Stuttgart. The High Performance Computing Center there houses Hazel Hen, Germany’s fastest computer so far. Fortissimo is embedded in the European initiative ICT Innovation for Manufacturing SMEs. It helps preserve the competitiveness of European companies on the world market. Other than cloud based simulations, it also supports robotics and laser-technology projects, as well as intelligent sensor-based machines.
Supercomputers are often used for simulations. They are particularly good when it comes to considering multiple scenarios thanks to their fast calculating speed that creates simulations impressively close to reality. The first supercomputer was presented by Cray company in the 1970s. Even an off-the-shelf Intel processor from 2008 calculates about 250 times faster now. Many processors are used simultaneously in supercomputers as they are interconnected through very fast wires.
Earlier, graphics processors were used in supercomputers, offering multiple parallel calculating units. Supercomputers need a lot of energy. Germany’s fastest computer Hazel Hen, for instance, swallows 3200 kilowatts. Linux is the operating system often used. Since the speed of supercomputers is achieved by parallel calculations, programs that run on them need to be adapted.